Eighty-five years ago on July 24, John Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution in Tennessee. He had violated the recently passed Butler Act, making it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
Revisiting Scopes is helpful to understanding Arizona’s recently passed “ethnic studies law,” HB 2281, which, like the Butler Act, attempts to control what schoolchildren can learn.
The highly publicized Scopes trial became a contest between powerful men: Clarence Darrow, the legendary lawyer defending Scopes, put prosecution lawyer William Jennings Bryan, presidential candidate and fundamentalist movement leader, on the stand as an “expert” on Biblical inerrancy. It also became a contest between those whose power was enhanced by the status of the Bible as unquestionable truth and those whose privileges would be enhanced by science.
But what about the school kids?
The trial revealed that the Butler Act sought to prevent the spread of information that could lead to a larger questioning of authority.
As in Tennessee, the real issue in Arizona is power. The new law prohibits classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment towards a race or class,” “are designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
The law, which is intended to eliminate a particular Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District, misrepresents ethnic studies through a now-familiar ruse that claims that any attention to race or racism, even as a topic of study, is in itself racist.
As in the Scopes case, larger issues are also at stake. The law declares “that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals,” and does not allow this ideology of individualism to be questioned. Individualism is civic religion in the United States. Over the last 40 years, the notion that we all rise or fall on our own merit has been used to decimate social welfare and privatize government services, producing a dramatic upward redistribution of wealth.
So let’s ask again, what about the schoolchildren?
Ethnic studies challenges the ideology of individualism just as the teaching of evolution challenged Biblical inerrancy.
Ethnic studies analyzes social, historical, political and cultural dynamics and questions whether, in fact, people have been treated fairly and whether they have been enabled to act as fully responsible individuals. It explores the ways that race and ethnicity are deployed in the distribution of power and resources.
Arizona bans the advocacy of “ethnic solidarity” because it doesn’t want to see a meaningful challenge to those who benefit from the pretense of race blindness and so-called individualism.
Eighty-five years from now, and we hope a lot sooner, most Americans will realize just how backward this Arizona law was.
Miranda Joseph and Sandra K. Soto are associate professors of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.